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Jun 1, 2012 10:44 AM

Triangle food trucks: Upper-middle class meals on wheels

I just came back from lunch where I found that a certain food trucks now offers an $11 grilled cheese sandwich, with no side or drink. I can most certainly afford to eat out at very nice restaurants and I fully support eating local/organic, etc., but this $11 truck sandwich struck a nerve with me. This is only one of many examples of how mobile food pricing has gotten out of control. It only took a few years for triangle trucks to jump the shark.

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  1. No need to let it strike a nerve...just don't order it. If no one else does, they'll either take it off the menu, lower the price, or go out of business. On the other hand, if for whatever reason, people continue to order it, then more power to the truck. The market will sort it all out, and in the meantime, no one is forcing you to order it.

    5 Replies
    1. re: carolinadawg

      I think ToothTooth has a good point, though. This is supposed to be street food, not fine dining. If charging $11 for a grilled cheese sandwich is commensurate with their food costs, that's one thing; but it it's simply vanity pricing, that's quite another. One of the attractive features of food trucks--and I should say that I'm not, in general, a big fan of them--is that they are, whether they are trying to or not, creating a street-food culture and represent something about the spirit of a place like Durham. In other words, they, as are all restaurants that are worth their salt, are more than just businesses.

      1. re: PGDinDurham

        The trucks are in business to sell food and make money. No one starts a food truck in order to add to the food scene or cool factor of Durham. If that happens, then great, but thats not the primary reason anyone would take the risk of starting a small business.

        1. re: carolinadawg

          Quite often, food truck grilled cheese sandwhiches include more than cheese and buttered bread, so I would be surprised if we are discussing highway robbery. Also, things have gotten more expensive such as fuel and food. Those food trucks use a lot of gas. I agree with CarolinaDawg for the most part. It's hard to find a more competitive environment than the food truck scene. If someone else can do it less expensively and/or better, all they have to do is pull up their truck and hang out their sign.

          1. re: Tom from Raleigh

            Agree with Cdawg and Tom. I will add that I give the food trucks here some leeway on pricing because they don't get the same volume of customers as larger cities with good food truck scenes.

            1. re: bbqme

              Interesting perspectives. Of course, now I want to go find one of those $11 sandwiches and see what that price will give me.

    2. Wow, can you tell us what kind of cheese was on that sandwich? And what bread? And how much of each of them?

      1. You folks don't see at least a mild element of farce in an eleven dollar grilled cheese sandwich?

        17 Replies
          1. re: Naco

            I'm not exactly sure what you mean. It's clearly absurd, ridiculous and ironically humorous, and I'd never even consider ordering it, but hey, if they can get away with it, go for it.

            1. re: carolinadawg

              Food trucks do a good amount of business after the bars close, so it's possible that an $11 greasy grilled cheese would sounds like an excellent investment with a bellyful of beer. I'm a cheapskate, so I don't see myself buying an $11 grilled cheese, but look below:

              From the menu of the Carolina Crossroads in CH;
              Flatbread Grilled Cheese, Mozzarella, Shaved Prosciutto, Capicola, Banana Peppers, Tomatoes, Basil Pesto, Rosemary Parmesan Fries $12

              Let's set aside the fries which change the value comparison, the point I'm trying to make is that a grilled cheese is not always a gilled cheese especially if you put a lot of meat on it.

              1. re: Tom from Raleigh

                I agree that ingredients can elevate the sandwich. I agree that a food truck does have overhead costs.

                I just feel pricing that is in line with a nice, sit-down place (which has many more categories of overhead) is over the top for a food truck experience.

                It kind of feels like a $5 sandwich and a $6 surcharge for the hip factor.

                1. re: meatn3

                  You've nailed my sentiments exactly. The price of this grilled cheese was priced at exactly what I would expect to pay at a decent sit-down place. The sit-down places also offer niceties such as climate control, tables, chairs and silverware. Often at this price point, you could expect a side of fries or a salad.

                  1. re: ToothTooth

                    Could you tell us where you got the sandwich and describe it? Was it just bread and cheese, or did it, as Tom suggested it might, have other things on it?

            2. re: Naco

              I for one am reserving judgement until the questions LulusMom asked are answered. I try not to make judgements based on incomplete information.

              1. re: bbqme

                This $11 grilled cheese was advertised as having jerk chicken, pulled pork (from a local purveyor of responsible meat products), tomato and an undisclosed blend of NC cheeses. The NC cheeses often seem to be Ashe County hoop or pepper jack. Origin of bread is not known, but its good. They also advertise that the bread is grilled in a local hormone-free butter.

                Size isn't a factor here either. None of their sandwiches are larger than what you would end up with from an average loaf of store bought bread.

                Don't worry, I didn't order the $11 grilled cheese, I had a bargain basement priced $8 grilled cheese sammich with chicken and chutney instead.

                1. re: ToothTooth

                  Thanks, ToothTooth; that actually explains a lot. Indeed, I wouldn't consider that a grilled cheese sandwich at all but something entirely different.

                  1. re: PGDinDurham

                    That's not something I would refer to as a "grilled cheese" sandwich.

                    1. re: carolinadawg

                      Call it a melt or flatbread or whatever you want but its still an $11 sandwich served out of a truck that bills itself a "grilled cheese" vendor.

                      1. re: ToothTooth

                        Call it anything you like, I can still walk into 18 Seaboard, sit in an attractive, comfortable, air conditioned space at a table with a tablecloth, napkin, and real flatware, be served at my leisure by polite, non-harried waitstaff and get a "Hardwood smoked cider vinegar pork sandwich with horseradish-apple slaw on a house-made brioche bun" with a choice of sides, all for $8. In fact, none of the lunch sandwiches top $9. And 18 Seaboard is also into the locally-sourced, house-made feel good about what you're eating scene.

                        I think meatn3 has it right with 1 addition - $5 for the sandwich, $3 for the hip factor, and $3 for self-congratulation.

                        1. re: ToothTooth

                          <shrug>. I still don't feel the need to be outraged.

                          1. re: carolinadawg

                            Not to be redundant again but I agree with carolinadawg. If you don't like it, shop elsewhere. Also, let's remember that many restaurants make much of their profit on adult beverages.
                            I will absolutely pay more for a hot dog from The Pig's cart at the Farmer's Market b/c I know he sources humanely raised organic animals; Sam makes his own charcuterie; and he takes culinary chances, so I want to support what he's doing.

                            1. re: Tom from Raleigh

                              Have to say I got a super BLT from The Pig's cart at the Farmer's Market; took it home & enjoyed every bite. the gourmet hot dog definitely is enticing.

                            2. re: carolinadawg

                              Sometimes the Invisible Hand points and laughs.

                  2. re: Naco

                    +1. Thanks, Naco. Glad I'm not the only one.

                  3. Sure, you say $11 grilled cheese it sounds ridiculous, mostly because grilled cheese is mentally velveeta on wonder bread for most people.

                    Given the updated description, it sounds high but not nuts.
                    Shoulders are $6-8/lb raw (including bone and trim) to get to pulled pork, you're looking at 8-12 hours labor costs + fuel and equipment for smoking
                    Pastured chickens (whole) are also $6-8/lb raw. 1-2 hours labor
                    Hoop cheese runs $8-$10/lb, more (a lot more) if it is something like CH Creamery
                    The local butter is 4-5 bucks a pound (again, at least)
                    Bread is 4-5 bucks a loaf from La Farm or Guglehupf.
                    Hipness, sure $3/sandwich.
                    Obviously, you can make a decent number of sandwiches from a pound of cheese and a loaf of bread, but you'd be hard pressed to make any money if you weren't charging at least $9 for the sandwich. I imagine that after permits, commissary, fuel and labor, their margin is pretty thin at $11.

                    I kind of actually hope you're right and that there is a 30% hipness surcharge. If you don't want to pay it (I don't either!), there are plenty of nice options at a variety of price points. Those who do want to pay it (suckers!?) feel like it is worth it and are helping people make ends meet in a really tough and crowded industry.

                    FWIW, I make my grilled cheese at home: cured ham slices from Brinkley or Cane Creek, La Farm bread, Beecher Flagship cheese, local butter. Actual product cost, assuming correctly my labor is free, somewhere around $9/sandwich, depending on how the cheese is grated.

                    8 Replies
                    1. re: brokegradstudent

                      Good ingredients do cost more, but food business are not buying at retail prices. If they are, they need to seriously rethink their business model.

                      1. re: brokegradstudent

                        See my post above. I don't see any established "nice" restaurants going out of business while offering an under $10 lunch.

                        For whatever reason, the market is currently willing to bear crazy high prices. It sounds as if there's some push-back starting to happen. If that continues, either the trucks will adjust their prices accordingly or you'll be seeing a lot of upfitted step vans listed on Craig's List.

                        1. re: rockycat

                          I just don't get the whole food truck thing. Chirba Chirba was in Carrboro & I tried it; it was fine but I prefer to sit down and enjoy a meal.
                          When I lived in NYC I was devoted to a food truck with amazing felafal but that's because it was before the advent of the great Israeli felafal places. But then I have no aspirations to hipness;-)

                          1. re: Rory

                            What I like about the trucks is a combination of the novelty factor and, in some cases, food items that I can't easily get elsewhere, For that reason I never buy from the pizza and sandwich trucks. I can get very good renditions of those food items for less money at other places. I do like dumplings and Korean tacos and those aren't as easy to find.

                            As for the novelty factor, well that's starting to wear off and I'm beginning to get annoyed by the hour long waits at the more popular trucks. Couple that with high prices and having to eat sitting on the curb and, well the shine is beginning to dull.

                            I applaud the entrerpreneurship and hard work of the food truck owners, but in the same way that I don't expect anyone to patronize my business if I can't offer them a superior product with superior service at a competitive price, I wouldn't expect anybody to patronize a food business that isn't competitive.

                            1. re: rockycat

                              I think that novelty factor is the key with food trucks right now, demonstrated if nothing else by the popularity of "food truck rodeos". (*shudder*) They're the cool new thing that's getting a lot of press so everyone wants to try them, and cost, experience quality, and well, taste aren't really a factor quite yet. (It's also why the price of even the most roadworn roach-infested food service truck seems to have jumped 50% in the last couple years.) As the buzz wears off though, there's really not a huge amount to recommend the experience except convenience, price, and/or the best food available in the area you're parking. I don't doubt the good trucks will hang on and prosper, but I suspect a lot of the pilot fish and remoras will find themselves with dwindling businesses in a year or two unless they find a captive audience.

                              1. re: Bricoleur

                                This article from EcoSalon pretty much nails my recent feelings about the food truck phenomenon:


                                Here's my favorite quote from the article:

                                "Then there’s the fact that street food is supposed to be affordable, simple, and accessible. But with the cool factor off the charts, people sometimes wait hours for a small portion of very expensive food that they then have to scarf down while perched precariously on a urine soaked curb. Is it that good, really?"

                                By the way, who goes to those food truck rodeos like the one the happened in Durham Central Park on Father's Day this past Sunday? People really love to wait in line that much?

                                1. re: ToothTooth

                                  Good article. She brings up a number of points usually not discussed in the current food truck love.

                        2. re: brokegradstudent

                          $11 for a grilled cheese with no sides? Yes, it has meat - so what? No fries? Or at the very least chips?

                          No local restaurant could get away with this and stay open.

                        3. I'd hate to hazzard a guess but given this trucks menu is posted


                          I think you would have been robbed. This truck may have been the one with the offending item but it was probably a special.

                          I went to the talk at Regulator Book shop from John T. Edge from the SFA and his promotion of his new Food Truck book (and cookbook). Food trucks have been around for a long time considering that within the last 2-3 years is where you've seen gentrification/fusion of food items. Our scene while nice is not nearly as well done as Portland, Austin or NY where things are a bit more controlled or as was pointed out in Wisconsin where someone in their government is assigned specifically to handle food truck legislation (so you don't get the crap that Raleigh and Chapel Hill have been doling out).

                          Digressing.. people who are in the food truck business are businessmen (and women) first. Mr. Edge admitted that the majority of this is a fad and that some will become brick and mortar places, others are best as trucks and still many will just vanish.

                          I enjoy the trucks because some offer a change from the typical foods you can get and for those that work near where trucks go during the afternoons this can be true for deciding what you want for lunch. Most of the times the food is priced about right for what you get. The plus of the food truck is some community that you won't get at a sit down place unless you sit at the bar. Plus if there are annoying children you can simply walk away. I have my faves and I have some that I think are over priced for what you get, but in fairness to them.. I'm keeping that info to myself.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: burgeoningfoodie

                            I won't name any names, but it wasn't American Meltdown that was offering the $11 sandwich. It was a different truck and the $11 sandwich seems to be listed on their truck's menu pretty frequently (so there must be at least a few people buying it). In fact, I just saw it on their menu again this past Saturday while I was in downtown Durham.

                            1. re: ToothTooth

                              Oh okay. The only place I've heard of $11 grilled cheese in general is at Fatty Cue in NYC... but they may put shortribs on it.. which is funny because initially shortribs was throw away meat. Like a lot of other things it became chic and now everyone has it at prices higher then it might be.. anyways. Good choice to not go the $11 dollar route.